Like most recent college grads, I spent the past 16+ years of my life operating within a structure I understood. A system with clearly delineated mechanisms for success and failure. While there are certainly issues with grading systems not accurately gauging intellect and creativity, (instead rewarding diligence and Type A psychos like me) there was comfort in the ease of knowing where you stood. And just like the hit of adrenaline that comes every time your phone lights up, I’d become addicted to the positive feedback. To the quantitative reassurance that equated good grades with being good, smart, talented. It’s utter nonsense, and somewhere along the line I started to mix my self-worth in there, confusing positive affirmation of my ability to BS through ten pages, with my value as a person.
Contrary to many of my graduating peers, I was excited to join the working world. In fact, nearly a year in, I’m still happy to be here. Exhausted, confused, and often frustrated, I’m exhilarated by the free fall. Isn’t a confluence of ever competing and conflicting emotions what life is all about? Or rather, isn’t that what makes it interesting? Give me tortured and tumultuous over basic and boring any day.
Where I’ve found myself sobered, though, is in learning to find my self-worth outside of positive affirmation from superiors or from a number on a page.
I work in a small, amorphous, and exciting workplace. But unlike friends who have joined large and structured companies with their own quantitative systems for categorizing success, I don’t have solid checkpoints to confirm or deny whether I’m doing a good job. And frankly, I shouldn’t need that. I was hired to do a good job and no comment is a good comment, but the American school system has trained us to look for meaning in others’ reactions to our work instead of within ourselves. As I grapple to find comfort in this disconcerting new world, I’m also realizing that I need to learn to find value and identity outside of work. Which brings us to the point of this article. Wasn’t that a fun and rambling intro?
I signed up for a half marathon a few months back. It’s not my first, but my first since leaving the hallowed halls of my university’s moldy dorms. I assumed it would be a standard experience, but I should stop being surprised when running continues to teach me new lessons. This was a long, tough winter for me, and working out, typically an energy inducing reprieve, became an unwanted chore. After a long day at work it was the last thing I wanted to do, so I didn’t. I figured when spring sprung it’d bring the spring back into my step, but no dice. I still struggled to find the motivation to work out.
Then I had the terrifying realization that the half marathon was quickly coming up and not only was I not training, but I had lost my baseline of being in good enough shape to wing it. I immediately gave up on the idea of going for a personal best but was worried I might not even be able to finish. Well that got my ass in gear. Every workout that I would have skipped because of work lethargy became a priority. When the alarm would go off early and “winter me” tried to turn it off, terrified “I have to finish me” would skip the snooze, lace up my sneakers, and haul ass.
Then a funny thing happened. The workouts started getting easier and I could actually see my body changing. And more importantly, my mindset started changing. I wasn’t dreading the workouts anymore and even when I wasn’t looking forward to them, I felt even more accomplished when I completed them. This sense of accomplishment made me feel strong and proud. Suddenly I had something outside of work to derive worth from. I felt in control of something for the first time in awhile and I felt proud of that power. Certainly none of this is groundbreaking, in fact, it’s probably the most basic message there is about working out: set a fitness goal, accomplish it, feel good. But for someone who’s been heavily involved in fitness for a while, it’s refreshing to have it mean something new in the context of a search for post-grad meaning.
It is ugly and embarrassing to realize you depend so heavily on positive reinforcement from others.
It is hard to watch yourself stop deriving enjoyment from something you used to love. It is discouraging to watch your body change. But a lot of life is ugly, embarrassing, discouraging, and hard, so admit it to yourself, then set a goal. A half marathon isn’t going to coddle you and tell you you’re an A+ cutie with a brilliant brain, heart of gold, and ass of steel, but the affirmation is in the process. Is in the discipline. Is in the finish.
When I cross that line I don’t need anyone to tell me “good job” because I know I did one. I will have accomplished something hard all by myself. And there’s value in that. In the way that I believe in my self-worth when I put my mind to something and achieve it. So on those days when I wonder if anyone can even see me behind this desk, I’m going to set a goal and remind myself that it’s up to me to teach myself that I’m more than just some numbers on a page.